The secretary of the Army will propose a new plan today to boost recruitment by offering buck privates an extensive curriculum of college-level courses delivered via the Internet, with the promise that they could earn a two-year associate's degree during their initial four-year enlistment at virtually no cost.

The plan, which would mark an unprecedented expansion of educational opportunities for soldiers in uniform, is a measure of the Army's distress as it competes for personnel with a booming civilian job market. Searching for an advantage, the Army wants to ensure that its 165,000 first-term soldiers have enough free time and access to computers to take online courses from accredited colleges even when deployed far from their home bases.

The "distance learning" initiative, along with a related proposal to help soldiers earn high school equivalency diplomas, also represents a major shift in the Army's approach to potential recruits.

Since the World War II generation went to college under the GI Bill, the Army has emphasized programs that provide educational benefits for soldiers after they are discharged. Convinced that many young people worry about losing ground if they postpone their educations, Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera hopes to sell the idea that schoolwork can be as much a part of military life as going on maneuvers.

"The Army has traditionally been a place of opportunity, and now it is going to be a place where you learn while you serve, in addition to being a place where you earn benefits and save money so you can keep learning when your service is completed," Caldera said in an interview.

Caldera will outline the proposals and other efforts to make Army service more appealing during a speech today at a conference of Hispanic leaders in Miami, according to senior Army officials. Some of the measures, such as a program to help recruits pass the high school equivalency test, are designed specifically to attract Hispanics, who have shown a high propensity for military service but are under-represented in the Army, the officials said.

The equivalency program is aimed at young people who dropped out of school to work; one Army study showed Hispanics make up 40 percent of the potential recruits who score well on screening tests but lack a high school diploma. The Army would help such recruits prepare for and take the equivalency exam before the start of basic training.

During earlier consultations, Latino leaders raised concern that this program might backfire by luring students out of high school. Today, Caldera is expected to reassure a broad audience of Hispanic educators, business people and public officials that the Army has fine-tuned the program to avoid that problem: Only prospects who have been out of high school for at least a year and are too old to return will be eligible, and they will have to score high in the screening test.

"Hispanic leaders do not want there to be a perception that we have lowered the bar for their young people, and the Army can't afford to let that happen," said Patrick T. Henry, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. "They don't want Army recruiting to detract from their efforts to keep kids in school, and neither do we. And we certainly do not want the Army to be seen as an employer of last resort."

The educational initiatives, which are still being finalized within the Army and await formal approval from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, come as all the military services struggle to compete with job offerings in the booming civilian economy. In fiscal 1999, the Army came up 8 percent short of its recruiting goal, by far the largest shortfall of any service, and managed to meet its personnel needs only because more soldiers than expected decided to reenlist.

In partnership with a variety of U.S. colleges and universities, the Army and other branches of the military already offer extensive access to college-level courses at bases worldwide, including both associate's and bachelor's degree programs. Credits are fully transferable within the network of colleges, and the Army usually pays 75 percent of the tuition.

Often the curriculum is tied to a soldier's career specialty. For example, at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., where the Army trains communications specialists, a base education center offers a bachelor's degree program in electronic engineering from Southern Illinois University.

Most of the existing programs, however, are targeted at older troops who have reenlisted at least once, and the courses rely heavily on classroom attendance, according to Clinton L. Anderson, project director at the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a consortium that oversees the military's higher education partnerships.

The old style of classroom learning is all but impossible for soldiers serving in such hot spots as Kosovo, Kuwait and Haiti. "It is very hard for even the best student to keep up momentum during long and unexpected deployments to the other side of the world," Anderson said.

In response, the Army has turned to distance learning--an increasingly popular type of schooling in the civilian world, in which students get lessons, turn in assignments, interact with teachers and chat among themselves through the Internet.

"The beauty of it is that a soldier can do his work at any time and almost any place," said Anderson. "The problem is that to succeed with a lot of online course work, a student needs to be highly disciplined and highly motivated."